Remarks by Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides at a virtual panel discussion entitled "Can we achieve complete regional cooperation in the EastMed?"
1 June 2021
Thank you Constantinos both for the introduction and for this initiative.
Prior to my presentation let me say that it is both a pleasure and a privilege for me to be part of a panel with Kalypso, Elizabeth, Petros and Konstantinos, all distinguished academics in their field in the UK, the US and Cyprus.
I treasure my time in academia immensely, and I am always eager to engage with academics because I strongly believe that I stand to learn, question and expand my view points through a frank, creative exchange of views with you.
The proposition you pose in the question placed under the microscope in today’s discussion – whether we can achieve complete regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean - is one that fascinates me, and one that I constantly pose to myself, and that I discuss with colleagues from like-minded neighbouring countries.
I also believe that it is not a coincidence that we are asking this particular question at this specific point in time. A year ago we would have perhaps not considered this to be a proposition relevant or plausible enough to discuss.
Our exchange today is timely precisely because the wider Middle East and Gulf region is undergoing remarkable transformation, socio-economically and politically. It is a region in transformation, transitioning, re-writing its narrative in a very dynamic, radical manner.
I will proceed with my presentation in three parts:
Firstly I will attempt to “place” Cyprus in this region, untangle how Cyprus, an EU member state and a country of the region has re-oriented its foreign policy, and has made one of its core pillars deepening and expanding its ties in the region, and coming together with like-minded countries to promote a common vision for the region.
Secondly, I will outline the momentum that has been building in the region, through initiatives that I like to refer to as “microlateralism”.
And finally I will briefly touch on how we see this proliferation of cooperation evolving.
It is impossible to discuss Cyprus’s viewpoint on the region, without having as a starting point Cyprus’s geographical position. One of the most capturing narratives on Cyprus’s geography, is the one provided by US Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, in a presentation at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington DC. He said –
“Cyprus, is an island in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. It sits there like an aircraft carrier and dominates between east and west, as well as between north and south.”
Cyprus is the EU’s south eastern most corner, at the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean, at the crossroads of Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. It is also a country that has historically enjoyed excellent relations with its neighbours.
And while as Boyatt hints, more often than not Cyprus’s geography has been more of a curse than a blessing, our determined efforts in the last few years have been to dispute this narrative, and turn our geographical position into a blessing, putting it at the forefront of our geostrategic value.
In doing so, a core pillar of our foreign policy in recent years has been the expansion and deepening of relations with our neighbours, and at the same time acting as a bridge between our region, and Brussels, where the perception of the Middle East and the Gulf often does not reflect the complicated dynamics and complexities of this remarkable region.
We are investing political and diplomatic capital in the region because we believe in the region’s increasing geostrategic importance, which relates not only to its challenges but also to the promises it holds. The Middle East and Gulf region is witnessing for example remarkable demographic and socio-economic change. At the same time, political developments in the region have significant spillover effect in Europe and beyond. We need only consider the humanitarian migration crisis that resulted from conflict in the region and the long lasting repercussions in Europe and beyond.
The positive momentum that has been building in the region was triggered by the energy developments in the region but has evolved beyond this field. The discoveries brought countries of the region together, guided by international law and good neighbourly relations to delimit their seas. Cognisant of the immense potential of hydrocarbon discoveries, countries of the region recognised that it could become a tool of cooperation and synergies creating an economy of scale; a tool that would meet the energy security needs of the region and that of the EU and gradually contribute to greater stability and promote security and peace.
Our viewpoint is that hydrocarbons can become the new coal and steel, in a new regional context. In fact, the seeds for such a development have been sown through the trilateral cooperation mechanisms we have established, which were triggered by the energy developments in our region, with the realization that these developments have the potential of also re-shaping the political map of the region.
And so the seeds of what I referred to as “microlateralism” were planted. Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Jordan came together and formed cooperation mechanisms that over the last years have gained significant momentum, always maintaining their positive, inclusive agenda. They have expanded thematically into areas such as security, climate change, health and innovation.
Their added value has been acknowledged by other countries, and its format has been expanded to include countries such as the United Arab Emirates, France, the United States, Italy.
The deliverables of regional cooperation are clear. On 22 September of this year, the Statute of the Energy Forum established in Cairo with the participation of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Italy was signed; the US and the EU have joined as observers and UAE is expected to join as an observer as well. We have also had the historic agreements for normalization of relations between Israel, and countries in the region. At the beginning of April Cyprus hosted the Foreign Ministers of Greece, Israel and UAE, in a meeting that would had been unimaginable only a year earlier. Work is underway for joint projects in this format.
At a time when the pandemic has pushed states to insularism and away from multilateralism, countries of the region have gone the other way: they have looked to these mini-multilateral structures to address the pandemic together, through cooperation that involves not only governments but also the private sector.
Developments in the region over the last few years are telling us a story. A story that is radically different from the predominant narrative for the wider Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, which is one of a region of turmoil, characterised by conflict, its stability constantly threatened.
While I am by no means making the case that we have completely turned the page to this storyline, and tragically the events that recently unfolded in the past weeks in our neighbourhood are a gloomy reminder of that fact, we can also not overlook the significant steps that have been taken in the region in the opposite direction. We cannot ignore that while this narrative of turmoil unfolds, there is a parallel narrative, which in my opinion could reverse the predominant narrative of turmoil. It is the narrative of like-minded countries in the region, with an exclusively positive, inclusive agenda coming together to promote a vision of cooperation, peace, stability and prosperity.
So where do we go from here? How can we achieve complete regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean?
In my opinion developments are creating a dynamic that while not linear, is unmistakably there, and on which we must continue working and investing. This momentum could lead to the creation of a regional Organisation for Security and Cooperation when the political conditions permit. A regional organization that will be inclusive, based on a positive agenda, and with the only pre- requisites being respect for international law, commitment to good neighborly relations, and respect to the sovereignty, sovereign rights and territorial integrity of every country.
Peace in the region is not an oxymoron, and I say this fully cognisant of the fact that I am Foreign Minister of a European state with a political problem that is counting close to five decades. It requires vision, political will and it is possible if all countries of the region realise that geography is not a variable, and that we all stand to benefit from cooperation as opposed to conflict, that anachronist expansionist policies have no place in 21st century international relations.
Our hope is that all countries of the region will seize this moment of opportunity to engage in peace making, respect of international law, respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and sovereign rights of their neighbours.
I will end my remarks on this note, hoping that I have given enough food for thought to stir our discussion. Thank you for your attention.